THEM: Adventures with Extremists

Jon Ronson started to write profiles of people portrayed as extremists in the media in 1995. His book THEM: Adventures With Extremists was published in 2001, in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on the USA. We are 28 years on from when Jon started his research and 21 on from where the concerns felt in the years following the Iraq Wars led us. I started to read this collection wondering what might have changed in the last two or three decades.

I had THEM on my Dewithon list in 2021 but didn’t manage to read it. I found other Welsh books for last year’s readathon, but THEM is on my 60 To Be Read books to cross off the list this year and I’m marrying it up with Dewithon 2023.

The THEM of the collection’s title refers to the shadowy elite that some believe secretly runs everything. The members of the elite are variously portrayed as Jews, Marxists, satanists, shape shifting extraterrestrial lizards or any combination of these things. This group of people/shape shifting lizards/demons have as their aim the establishment of a New World Order. In the minds of many, its current incarnation has been aligned with the Bilderberg Meeting, a conference held annually under Chatham House rules since 1954, originally to prevent another world war and now with the aim of finding consensus around free market capitalism. The thread linking the subjects of Ronson’s essays is the extremists’ belief that they must fight against this conspiracy, perhaps to establish their own New World Order. Although they wouldn’t see their World Government in those terms, of course, because they are in the right.

Given that the shadowy cabal has existed in the minds of the paranoid and those of a fundamentalist bent for centuries, you would think that the supposed elite would have established its New World Order by now. The founder of the InfoWars website and peddler of conspiracy theories Alex Jones appears in three of the essays in this collection. From his pronouncements reported by Ronson, you might calculate that the shadowy elite has been around since the establishment of Ancient Rome and has manifested itself in every expansionist civilisation. And yet still the New World Order hasn’t been achieved. What can be holding the shadowy elite up? It must be so frustrating for them. They’re an elite, after all, and setting up a New World Order should be a walk in the park. Unless they’re not real, of course.

Umberto Eco plots the course of this conspiracy theory in the final essay of his collection On Literature, demonstrating that fictions such as The Protocols of Zion have been taken as fact and are nothing more than fables tweaked by propagandists to suit their purposes, resulting in the construction of a convincing narrative that makes the lies seem plausible to those who feel the conspiracy to be true, despite not being able to prove its truth. As with any convincing lie, there is an element of truth present – in the case of the Bilderberg Meeting, discussions are off-the-record and in pursuit of the maintenance of a global economic system that isn’t necessarily one built on the basis of equality. It’s easy to see how a conspiracy can be attached to such a body, and its members transformed into a shadowy elite of Jews/Marxists/satanists/shape shifting extraterrestrial lizards. Ronson is Jewish and questions whether Jews like him, who camouflage themselves in “sunshiny attempts at mingling with the gentiles”, have helped to create the sense of a shadowy cabal. “The camouflage” he suggests “is mistaken for scheming, as if we’re concealing something sinister, when in fact we are just hopelessly in love with the camouflage.”

As well as trying to find out if the theories about the Bilderberg Meeting are true, part of Ronson’s curiosity is around why the people portrayed as extremists by the media believe the things they do, and whether their portrayal as extremists is ever the full story. The collection begins with the Tottenham Ayatollah, Omar Bakri Mohammed. It’s a portrait of a man simultaneously ridiculous and dangerous, his ideas and the way he presents them laughable to most people but compelling to those who share his view on the world. So compelling that they would kill to bring to fruition ideas of the type Bakri espouses. The recent release of the third volume of the report into the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing has shown that simultaneously ridiculous and dangerous men continue to wreak havoc in utterly preventable ways. I don’t know if anything has really changed in the 26 years since Ronson’s profile of Bakri first appeared in print.

As ever, Ronson strikes a credulous, semi-naïve tone. After he became interested in Bakri as a subject for an essay, he tells us “I wrote to ask him if I could follow him around for a year or so while he attempted to transform Britain into an Islamic nation.” There’s a hint that Ronson doesn’t believe that Bakri could effect such a change, but also a willingness to be proved wrong in the interests of journalism. It’s an odd line to walk.

The action in the collection swings from London to America and to Europe via Africa. Some of the fundamentalists Ronson meets come across as frightened and confused by the world, desperately looking for something firm to hold onto, some kind of certitude that helps them to make sense of life. It really is a story as old as time. It is human to seek out explanation and to invent explanation when hard evidence is lacking or doesn’t support your particular set of feelings about the world. Hence the conversation Mr H and I were caught in the middle of on a recent bus journey in which one man asked another if he was ‘Awake’, opening up a discussion that ranged from vaccines and chem trails to gender diversity, women not knowing their place and asylum seekers receiving preferential treatment. Violence was apparently the answer to everything.

Others that Ronson meets are cynical and power hungry, feeding off the fear and anxiety of others to set up their own personality cults and exert a twisted influence over social and political discourse. These men (and it is mostly men in this book, with wives, girlfriends and daughters taking a supporting role) are in competition with each other, their viewpoints at odds, despite believing in the same thing. Ronson’s portrayal of them is amusing because they are ridiculous, but then there’s the reminder that many are influenced by their rhetoric to do horrible things and they’re not amusing at all.

There’s a three-chapter fever dream in the collection, centred upon the online newspaper Spotlight, its founder Jim Tucker, a Bilderberg Meeting in Portugal and the Anti Defamation League. At times the action is so startling as to feel made up, but Ronson isn’t in the business of making things up, so even the bizarre phone conversation he has with a woman at the British Embassy in Portugal about the fact that he thinks he’s being tailed by someone from the Bilderberg Group must be true. At the end of this sequence, which sees Ronson bear witness to the arrival at a 5-star golf resort of individuals with high levels of power in business and politics, he presents two pieces of evidence that show how extremism is relative. You can be at the extreme of any belief system, religious, political, personal, moral or any other definition of belief. You can see the thing you are opposed to in anyone, if you hold a fundamentalist belief that the thing you are opposed to is so wrong that you have an absolute right to pursue its eradication, even from places it isn’t present.

The troubled former footballer and sports pundit David Icke gets his own chapter. He’s another ridiculous figure, but one who is sad rather than dangerous. Of course he, his acolytes and his opponents would disagree with that assessment. I don’t read, hear or see much about him these days. At the time Ronson was writing about him, he was a big name on the conspiracy theory lecture circuit, commanding large audiences. As is so often the case, though, new conspiracy theorists regularly come along to replace their predecessors as flavour of the month for journalists. If you’re not interested in conspiracy theories, it can be easy to forget about the ones who once loomed large.

The Reverend Dr Ian Paisley also gets a chapter. He’s the anti-Catholic leaven in the anti-Semitic dough here, the man who believed the shadowy cabal was run by the Pope rather than the Jews. I read this chapter the day after St Patrick’s Day, which is celebrated with gusto in Manchester, a very Irish city. The Orange Order also has its day, but its feel is very different, because the culture it is celebrating is a more political one than the national saint’s day on 17 March. I don’t know whether the Republican Irish have their own version of the Orange Order march, but the Orange Parade is the only one I’ve witnessed. It has the stony-faced grimness that I associate with Northern Irish politicians like Paisley. Ronson met Paisley a few months before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. To make clear his opposition to any form of cooperation with the Catholic Republic of Ireland, Paisley absented himself from the process, going all the way to Cameroon to preach to sinners. There’s little about Paisley’s conspiracy beliefs in this chapter, but much about his propensity for bullying dressed up as speaking his mind.

The conclusion to the collection is suitably strange, from an encounter with a wealthy businessman, who seems to want to buy up Romania’s Communist past and turn it into a Ceausescu theme park, to a meeting with an original founder member of the Bilderberg Meeting, who acknowledges the tension between different ideas of what a One World Government is and how the privacy inherent in the group and their aim of building a community across the world that shares the same vision for Western capitalism and democracy might be exaggeratedly described as a a secret cabal bent on establishing a one world government, to a trip to the redwood forest of northern California where Ronson seeks to bust or confirm a central myth about the shadowy cabal. What transpires is less occult ceremony and more quaint college theatrics, part of an annual holiday camp for the rich and powerful that has been in existence since 1878. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was there to secretly film it, using his footage in a documentary about Bohemian Grove and the shadowy cabal. As well as writing about it in THEM, Ronson also made a documentary for Channel 4 that covered this and other stories included in the book. I didn’t see it at the time and it seems not to be on the All4 player. I think this book has been enough exposure to conspiracy theorists and global capitalists, though, so shan’t seek it out elsewhere.

I found reading about the constant stream of conspiracy theories, all variations on a theme with their own specific complexities, exhausting. I can only imagine how much more exhausting it is to believe in those theories and dedicate your life to them. Some of the chapters are quite grim, despite Ronson’s affable writing style. The hatefulness dressed up as reasonable views, the anger, alongside Ronson’s determination not to judge all got a bit too much at times.

One of Ronson’s Bilderberg contacts says something interesting in the last few pages of the book.

… nobody rules the world any more. The markets rule the world. Maybe that’s why your conspiracy theorists make up all those crazy things. Because the truth is so much more frightening. Nobody rules the world. Nobody controls anything.

It’s a world that suits the already rich and powerful, as examined by Mariana Mazzucato in Mission Economy. The markets are king, the rich reap the benefits, the rest of us suffer the consequences. We really need to see a change, but extreme positions facilitated by the global town square of social media seem to be preventing that. I finished reading with a reflection that Ronson’s book arrived at the start of the 21st century, a century we’re now almost a quarter of the way through, and the nascent chaos captured in THEM seems to have burgeoned. The THEM that the conspiracy theorists rail against seems outmoded. The chaos and fracturing of society that their railing engenders feels like it’s the new THEM.

Read 12/03/2023-18/03/2023

My second read for Dewithon 23.
My third read for Bookforager’s Picture Prompt Book Bingo this year.

5 thoughts on “THEM: Adventures with Extremists

  1. Exhausting, it certainly does sound so, Jan, especially from your, ahem, exhaustive analysis! I’m glad you’ve read it so I don’t have to – though one never knows, I may need to when the balloon goes up… 😁

    Liked by 1 person

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